David Matas & David Kilgour: Harper should stand against Chinese slave labour

Published by the National Post (Ontario)
February 1, 2012

Prisoners, who are about to be released after serving their sentences, listen to information about a company at a job fair held for them inside a prison in 2009. (Reuters)

By David Matas and David Kilgour

On his trade mission to China this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should ask his hosts to stop exporting the products of slave labour to Canada, and to shut down their extensive network of slave-labour camps. Toward that end, he should begin negotiating an arrangement with China that would ensure Canadians do not unwittingly buy products made with slave labour.

China engages systematically in forced labour in all forms of detention facilities — prisons that house sentenced criminals, administrative detention centers for those not yet charged, and “re-education through labour” camps.

A 1998 declaration of the International Labour Organization (ILO) commits all member states, including China, to eliminate forced labour. The Government of China reported to the ILO that its constitution prohibits forced labour, and that there is a national policy of eliminating the practice. Yet, forced labour in detention remains part of Chinese domestic law: Article 58 of the Chinese Law on Prisons stipulates that a warden may punish a prisoner who is able‑bodied but refuses to work.

The United States signed a memorandum of understanding with China in 1992 committing Beijing to ensure that prison labour products are not exported to the United States. In 1994, Washington signed a statement of co-operation that in principle allowed U.S. officials to gain access to Chinese production facilities suspected of exporting prison-labour products. But the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, in its report to Congress for 2008, wrote that “the Chinese government has not complied with its commitments” under the 1992 and 1994 agreement, thereby “making it impossible for U.S. officials to conduct complete and useful investigations of such allegations.”

But even if compliance with these agreements is poor, their mere existence is a good first step. Canada should enter into similar agreements with China, and then do what it can to enforce them. The more countries that enter into such agreements, the more combined pressure can be exerted on Beijing.

Speaking to U.S. journalists in 1993, in answer to questions about the desire by rights groups to inspect prisons, then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said: “I believe that if the Red Cross does put forward such a request … we would give positive consideration to that request.” In fact, the Red Cross did put forward such a request, and there was no positive consideration. Though almost 20 years have passed since then, Mr. Harper should ask the Chinese President to make good on those 1993 words, and permit unrestricted International Committee of the Red Cross access to Chinese places of detention.

Under the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review, the government of Canada, along with the United Kingdom, Hungary, the Czech Republic, France, Sweden and New Zealand, recommended in 2009 that China abolish all forms of arbitrary detention, including “re-education through labour” camps. The Government of China said no to this recommendation. But there is no reason why Canada should not keep pressing the issue.

Most of the population of Chinese slave labour camps are practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that the Communist Party banned in 1999 out of fear that the ideological supremacy of the Party was threatened by its popularity. The U.S. State Department has concluded that “Falun Gong adherents constituted at least half of the 250,000 officially recorded inmates in [China’s] re-education‑through‑labour camps.” (Unofficial estimates suggest that there are actually 1,200 forced labour camps, with 2 million inmates.)

We concluded, in two reports in 2006 and 2007 and a book published in 2009 under the title Bloody Harvest, that Falun Gong practitioners have been killed in the tens of thousands, and their organs sold for transplants. Chinese arbitrary detention facilities are not just forced labour camps, in other words: They also are vast forced organ-donor banks.

Goods imported into Canada should withstand scrutiny on both economic and ethical terms. A trade mission to a communist state exporting the products of slave labour around the world at rock bottom prices should do more than seek favourable terms of trade for Canada. Its leaders, including the Prime Minister himself, should do what they can to end the abhorrent practice of slave labour in China.

To read the article on the National Post webite, click here.